In Russia's Shadow

An interview with Vaira Vike-Freiberga

OR: Do you believe that there is a broader crisis within democracy globally? What resistance have you encountered in your attempts to promote it?

Vīķe-Freiberga: I would say that the average citizen has no objection to democracy, if you explain to him or her that the whole point of it is to make sure that they are as much a part of society and in principle have the same rights as anybody else. The principles of inherent equal rights and respect for human dignity — these are principles that only sociopaths reject as such. Unfortunately, it is the practical application of these principles in real life that is truly a challenge, for there is a natural tendency in human beings to seek out privileges and to preserve them at every cost.

When you have reached a critical mass in a society of people who are committed to those principles, then you can have democracy and systems of governance where the rule of law prevails. This takes a collective will and effort based on values accepted by a significant majority. We see too many countries where the rule of law has never existed. Where a person's life can be snuffed out at any moment and it's considered normal. Democracy is in many ways a fragile flower that you have to tend carefully. But one of the roots of it is education.

I think in that sense Europe — though it considers itself extremely civilized — has not always acted civilized throughout its history by our current standards of civilization. On the other hand, Europe has been the birthplace of the ideas and ideals on which we have built democracy. Europe is the living proof that ideas and values can evolve and lead to radical improvements in society.

Periodically we hear people debate that there’s a gap of trust between populations and their elected representatives, especially in the European Parliament. What does it boil down to? People want to know: “Can I trust my elected representatives to really represent my interests?” But trust is a subjective thing and is often based on emotions rather than rational considerations. Most of all, people want to know how they can hold politicians accountable for what they promised before the elections and what they delivered afterwards. This takes two-way communication as well as two-way good will, and these are not always easy to achieve.